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The Boarded-up House

May 3, 2011

A month ago I got an email from a reader, Mick, about Augusta Huiell Seaman. Seaman was an author of girls’ books who wrote from around 1910 though the 1940s, and while her early books were historical novels, she soon found herself a very nice niche writing books about contemporary teenage girls solving mysteries with a historical element. The Boarded-up House is the first of these mysteries, and it’s kind of great.

Joyce Kenway and Cynthia Sprague — best friends since they were little — live almost next door to each other. There’s just one building in between: a Colonial mansion that existed before the town that surrounds it, and which has been shut up for as long as anyone can remember. One afternoon, Joyce’s cat Goliath gets into the house — a board covering one of the basement windows has rotted away — and the girls follow him inside. What they find there is pretty weird: not only is the house still completely furnished, the plates from the occupants’ last meal there are still on the table. The girls decide to investigate and figure out what happened, and eventually they do.

The mystery is kind of predictable, and unlikely coincidences abound, but Joyce and Cynthia are engaging characters — Joyce is the imaginative, adventurous one, while Cynthia is more stolid, but not all of the good ideas are Joyce’s, and by the end it’s clear that Cynthia is just as cool as her best friend (as long as you think it’s cool to be a little bit square, and — well, I do).

The best part, though — the kind of magical part — is the way Seaman engages with history. I mean, part of it is the thrill of exploration and discovery. Books where people unearth old and beautiful things are almost always awesome. But there’s also something else happening — a sort of compression of history.  With the help of the newspapers they find lying around, the girls figure out the the house must have been deserted in 1861, and they’re like, “Oh, wow, that’s a long time ago — more than forty years.” And…forty years is not that long a time. It was kind of jarring, actually, and I had to start wondering whether that made the Civil War a lot more recent than I usually consider it, or whether I’m in the habit of thinking of 1905 as a lot more recent than it actually was. I mean, probably it’s the latter, but for a minute the history of the United States seemed incredibly surreal to me, in kind of a cool way.

I’m not surprised that Seaman seems to have a loyal fanbase, and I expect that some of the people reading this blog are part of it. And those of you who aren’t might want to check her out, especially fans of girls’ mystery series, and probably people who like Jane Abbott.

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6 comments

  1. One more of her mysteries is available at Gutenberg,
    The Dragon’s Secret (1921) and three other books at http://digital.library.upenn.edu.
    (Only two are mysteries)
    The Slipper Point Mystery (1919)
    The Mystery at Number Six (1922)


    • Yes, and a couple of others are on Google Books. I’m already aware of these, but thanks.


  2. I read this some time ago and it really is a fun read. I’m always doing calculations when a date or a well known event is mentioned such as the Civil War. I also like to find how old the characters would be now if they were real.

    Interestingly the website retroread now has a beta direct conversion engine that allows you to seach google books epub and convert to kindle format without the need to download to the computer! I’ll have to sign up there as I have never actually connected my Kindle 3 to the computer so I wasn’t able to get some Googlebooks only texts because it was too much of a hassle to use the computer.


    • Ooh, that retroread thing sounds excellent. Thanks for the tip!


  3. This sounds completely up my alley. Thanks for mentioning it!
    I know what you mean about the perspective of the “forty years.” Sometimes I think I read so many old books that the past feels like yesterday, and other times recent events feel like eons ago (like when I realized ten years had passed between Toy Story 1 and 2). It’s kind of a warped timeline. When I was reading Ivanhoe, I had to remind myself that it was the equivalent of modern novels being written about the Tudors, even though the Crusades and Sir Walter Scott felt almost equally old to me.


    • Walter Scott is a little too consciously historical for me to ever feel like he’s writing about his own time, but I do find that I have an easier time reading historical novels if they were written a long time ago. There’s a way in which old-fashioned writing is old-fashioned writing, whenever it was written. Contemporary novels always feel contemporary to me, even if they’re set way in the past. Somehow I’m much more comfortable reading a novel about the middle ages if it was written in, say the ’50s, even though that’s not so long ago.



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